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- Charon is the ferryman that guides dead souls across the Styx and Acheron rivers and into the Greek Underworld, known as Hades.
- Charon is shown and mentioned in greek art and literature and is also mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy.
- Charon is often described as being a rough, old ferryman, however, descriptions vary depending on the literary sources or reference art.
- As a ferryman, Charon only transports the souls of the dead that have received proper burial rights and are able to pay with a coin placed in the mouth.
- Charon’s boat is most likely a punt, which has been described as being rust-colored.
There are many different types of boats out there, and keeping track of them all can be pretty difficult, so what is a Charon Boat?
There is nothing called a Charon Boat, however, the real question you should be asking is who is Charon and why is he associated with boats? In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman responsible for carrying the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron and into Hades.
While many of you may be familiar with some basic greek mythology, Charon isn’t the most popular character from these tales, so you shouldn’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of him before. However, if you are interested in these greek myths and want to learn more about a lesser-known character in these stories, you’re in the right spot. So, who is Charon, where does he fit into the Greek Underworld, what literary sources and art does he appear on and what do we know about his boat?
Who Is Charon?
Charon is a being in greek mythology who is known as the Ferryman of the Dead. He is a psychopomp which is a type of supernatural being, deity, or god that appears frequently throughout many world religions and mythologies. These beings help guide recently dead souls from the mortal world into the afterlife.
In Charon’s case, he is not quite a god and he only escorts those dead souls who have been given proper funeral rites, and who were able to pay with a coin that was placed in the mouth of a recently dead corpse.
However, to know more about why he is depicted as a ferryman in all these myths, it will be helpful to know more about the Greek Underworld.
Hades: The Ancient Greek Underworld
The Ancient Greek Underworld, called Hades is one of the three realms that the Ancient Greeks believed made up the universe. Named Hades, after the God of the Dead of the King of the Underworld himself.
Hades, is the realm of the dead and no mortals are able to enter, with only a few heroic exceptions throughout Greek literature, the most famous of whom are Heracles and Odysseus, from Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.
In the myths, Hades is described as being located under or at the edge of the Earth and contrasts with the realm of the living by being shrouded in darkness and without sunlight.
The most important part of the mythology of Hades is its famous rivers. While there are many ways to enter Hades, the most famous way to enter Hades is by crossing the River Styx.
This is where Charon, the Ferryman of the Dead, comes in. Charon, as the psychopomp of Hades, is most famously known for ferrying the souls of the dead across the Styx and into Hades.
However, despite the Styx being the most famous of these underworld rivers, there are five rivers in Hades, and Charon isn’t always described as ferrying the dead across just the Styx. In fact, most accounts describe Charon crossing the River Acheron.
The River Styx vs. River Acheron
Even though most people have heard of the River Styx, the River Acheron is the river that Charon is most commonly described as crossing.
The River Acheron is the river of misery or woe however, it has been described in a variety of different ways. Sometimes described as a river, it is also commonly said to be a large swamp or lake.
However, no matter how The Acheron is described, most early greek sources including Pausanias, Plato, Pindar, and later, Italian poet Dante in his Divine Comedy, place Charon on the swamps of the River Acheron.
It wasn’t until Roman poets like Propertius, Statius, and Ovid, that Charon started to become more associated with the Styx. This change was most likely inspired by another Roman poet, Virgil, in his epic poem the Aeneid, which tells the story of Aeneas a Trojan soldier who escaped with Fall of Troy and traveled to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans.
In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the geography of the underworld and describes Charon as being associated with both the Acheron and the Styx. This poem also reinforces the need for the dead to have payment in the form of a coin placed in the mouth, as dead souls who could not pay were made to walk the shores near the Styx in darkness for 100 years before being allowed to cross.
What Does Charon Look Like?
Charon has been described in a variety of different ways throughout Greek myths and art, with some of the first examples of Charon being painted art on Greek funerary pottery from the 5th and 4th centuries BC.
The art on these vases shows the underworld ferryman as a rough-looking Athenian sailor dressed in a reddish brown. He is usually holding his ferryman’s pole in one hand and holding out the other hand to receive the newly deceased.
Another famous Latin author, Seneca, later describes him as being an old man dressed in foul garb with haggard cheeks and a messy beard, who guides his boat with his long pole.
Much later in the 14th century AD, Dante described Charon in his Divine Comedy much the same as Virgil centuries earlier, being a mean-spirited old man who guides the souls of the dead into the Underworld, however, this time with the addition of having eyes of fire.
Charon is also the first supernatural being that the character Dante meets in Dante’s Inferno.
Charon has even been depicted as a winged demon of death that carries a double hammer, although this version of Charon is certainly much less common than the others and most likely influenced by Charon’s Etruscan counterpart. In modern times, his appearance has changed to resemble what most people know as the Grim Reaper, a hooded skeleton.
Charon Counterparts Outside Of Ancient Greek Mythology
Charon has a few counterparts outside of greek mythology. For instance, in Etruscan Mythology Charon is called Charun. The Etruscans, being the people who inhabited most of central Italy before the advent of the Roman Empire, had plenty of exposure to Greek Mythology and culture, so it is no surprise that they took inspiration from greek mythology about the Underworld.
However, instead of being shown as a rough old ferryman, he is depicted as a demon of death who wields a hammer. He has bluish skin with pointy ears and serpent-draped arms. He is also often depicted with snake-like hair, a vulture’s hooked nose, and a tusked mouth.
Charon also lives on today with the name Charon being changed to Charos or Charontas and being used to describe the angel of death in modern Greek folklore.
Charon is also the name of the largest moon of the dwarf planet Pluto.
What Do We Know About Charon’s Boat?
Being that Charon is the Ferryman of the Dead, it begs to question what about Charon’s ferry? What does it look like?
Unfortunately, though there are plenty of descriptions of Charon, Charon’s ferry doesn’t get the same treatment.
Being that Charon is often depicted with a long pole or steering oar, it can be assumed that Charon’s ferry is a sort of punt or a boat that is driven by using a long stick to push off the river bottom and propel the boat forward.
Other than that, in Virgil’s Aeneid, the ferryman is described as manning his rust-colored skiff, however, this is one of the only descriptions of the boat that we have from greek mythology.